Opening ceremony, Canada Day Toronto Blue Jays game. Image: Ken Whytock/Flickr

Canadian voters will select a new government in a few months, joining nearly 2 billion citizens around the world participating in elections this year.

Appeals to the “everyday” citizen have been widespread, as candidates around the world have attempted to present themselves as the sole representative of the disenfranchised.

But when political leaders claim to be “for the people,” research shows there can be legitimate reasons for voters to be concerned about the state of democracy.

What is populism?

“Populist” politicians have popped up around the world in recent years, with many appealing to a similar set of values. Across both partisan and national divides, populist leaders can be identified from their anti-elitist and anti-establishment sentiments. Populist leaders stress the struggle between “the people” and “the elites” and critique the existing systems of democracy as no longer representative of real people. These leaders then claim to speak exclusively for the interests of the public, often disparaging their political opponents along the way.

A common misconception about populism is that leaders gain support exclusively from the economically disenfranchised, by calling out economic tensions that plague the working class but benefit the rich. Evidence, however, shows that support for populist leaders extends across the socio-economic spectrum. In other words, populist appeals go much broader than simply operating on economic anxiety.

So what else is populism based on?

Populism exploits and creates divisions within democracy. It operates by appealing to and defining disparate identities, capitalizing on a form of identity politics.

As mentioned earlier, populist leaders often begin by redefining those who are “the people” and those who are not the people. The leader then claims to speak exclusively on behalf of these people.

By taking advantage of divisions, populism gains traction by “othering” certain members of society. This creates a platform for what can often devolve into bolder forms of hatred and bigotry, often as a result of xenophobia or racism.

Populism erodes trust in democracy and vital democratic institutions

One of the central threats that populism poses is that it undermines trust in democracy and important democratic institutions.

By taking aim at the efficacy or relevance of government, populist leaders begin to erode trust in the democratic process, and — as they simultaneously stoke divides within the population — erode trust across society as a whole.

Of particular concern is the way that populism so often breaks down trust in the news by deeming reliable journalists and reporters as “fake” or untrustworthy. In reality, however, sound journalism is essential for democracies to function, holding governments accountable and making information accessible to the public, the very people that populists claim to stand up for.

Populism fails to recognize healthy dialogue as a cornerstone of democracy

As populism attempts to uphold the interests of the people (by othering some in society), it shuts down healthy public debate.

In the name of amplifying unheard voices, populism actually operates to break down what democracy is fundamentally built on — the ability to engage various opinions and find a collective way forward.

While democracy recognizes that people have a diversity of thought, populism is far more intolerant, justifying the squashing of divergent voices by capitalizing (and spurring) on polarization.

Can populism be a useful democratic tool?

At its worst, populism exploits weaknesses in democracy, playing off tensions within society and taking advantage of anxiety, anger, and fear. At its best, populism could produce increased democratic inclusion and provide a platform for everyday people whose concerns go unheard.

Though a cause for concern, populism can be helpful in shedding light on deficiencies in democracy and inequality within society. Populism points to legitimate grievances and anxieties within society and demonstrates that many everyday people do feel left behind and unheard by decision makers.

The solution to many of these tensions is not to disparage democracy, but rather to make democracies more truly representative. If politicians genuinely wish to care for everyday people, they must be led by and responsive to real, everyday people. Politicians cannot care for some people while disregarding others, but should rather push for more inclusionary political reforms — such as a system of proportional representation — that would allow all voices to be heard.

Too often, politicians have used populism in self-serving and self-interested ways, leveraging the interests of everyday people as a facade to uphold their own power. But if the aim is to truly represent “the people,” leaders must encourage dialogue and look to bridge divides rather than exacerbate them.

Deborah Mebude is the current communications coordinator and former refugee rights intern at Citizens for Public Justice. With a background in communications and journalism, she combines her passions for research and dialogue with a vision to see just social policies in Canada. Find her on Twitter @deborahmeb.

Image: Ken Whytock/Flickr